Friday, November 23, 2012

My 20th Century History Creative Assignment - Jewish Mother & Son

Earlier this month, I shared that my college 20th century history class had gone to the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.  We were asked to use our experiences at the Centre to write creative assignments.  There were a few options, and the one I chose was to tell of my impressions of the talks that we had with survivors of the Holocaust after we went through the museum, and to present an imaginary person who had also survived the Holocaust, and to incorporate them into our essay.  I wanted to share my essay with you.  The moment that I wrote about, with the survivor that we listened to, was powerful.  I pray that you will be moved by his story, and memories, and by the imagined narrative about what his mother might have been going through as she wrote the postcard to him.

Here it is...

The Holocaust survivor that I chose to listen to was Thomas Strasser, a Hungarian Jew who was rounded up  by the Nazis and spent time in a work camp in Hungary.  We arrived in the middle of his talk, and so there are many details of his life and experiences during the war that we missed.  As he neared the end of his talk, I asked him about his thoughts and expectations for his family and home after he was liberated from the camp in 1945, by the Russians.  He was still a teen-ager, and I asked him if, at that point, he still had any hope that his family might be waiting for him, or was he aware that so many Jews had been killed, and that his family might well be included in that number?

He told us that, of course, he had hoped that some of his family might still be alive and back at home.  It was a devastating thing for him, as a young man, to come to the discovery that his entire family had been killed in the Nazi death camps.  From the time that he had left home in an unsuccessful effort to escape a work camp round-up, to the end of the war, he had received only one piece of correspondence from his family.  It was a post card from his mother.  She had sent it to him from the Jewish ghetto in Hungary, and had filled it with maternal admonitions to dress warmly as the colder weather approached and to stay well.  He also told us that there were places on the post card where the writing was blurred, and he knew that it was from the tears of his mother.  He was very moved, as he spoke of this final, emotional connection to his mother. 

As a mother myself, I felt deeply for the heartbreak of this mother, longing for her son, haunted by rumors of terrible things happening to her son imprisoned in the camps, and living with the increasing fear of her own imprisonment as the round up was beginning in her own ghetto.

I pictured her, sitting at a table, anxiously fingering a pen as she stared out of a dirty window onto a grey world.  The post card, a remnant somehow saved, tucked absently into a suitcase during a long-forgotten vacation, lay at an angle on the rough wood of the table.  She ran her finger absently along the edge of the card, and for a moment allowed her thoughts to drift to the son she loved, the son she had not seen for so long, the son who might not live.  If he lived, she knew then that his life was at best, a difficult one.  At worst, it was a nightmare the very thought of which haunted her. 

Her mind drifted back to the days when caring for him was a simple thing.  There had been a time when cuts and scrapes were easily tended with warm water and soft kisses, when danger meant clumsy tumbles from swing sets or colds that refused to go away.  How easy it was then, to protect him with called out warnings of caution, with warm clothes, hot water bottles and camphor, with maternal frowns and gentle hands and words of wisdom. 

Then, he was beyond her reach, and nothing in her arsenal of maternal tools would help him. No folk remedies, no words of warning, no wisdom of the ages…but still, a mother must do something.  With a pen, with a post card saved from a trip to the sea-side, with a heart filled with pain and love and an excruciatingly desire to nurture her child, she would do something. 

There is courage, there is bravery in the hearts of those who stand up to injustice, who wage war with evil, warriors who bear arms to protect the countries that they love. 

And then there is the courage of a mother, hands trembling with fatigue and fear, eyes filled with the sting of tears, taking pen in hand and pouring her love to a son already lost…

“My dear Thomas, I hope and pray that you receive this, son, and know that you are in our thoughts.  Father says hello and sends his love.  I trust that as the weather grows colder, you are remembering to dress well, wear your boots and jacket, and take your mittens with you, even if you think that you won’t need them. You never know, and it is better to have them than not. Am I right?  Of course I’m right. And eat well, child. There is always time to eat well.  Remember what you have been taught, and take care of yourself well.  It would not do, to take ill and die from the flu, now would it? 
Remember, child, you are loved and thought of often.  We are well.
I send kisses,
Your loving Mother”

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